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Burma infant's cries resonate
Burma infant's cries resonate
A world away, young lawyer uses US legal system to battle human-rights abuses
By Theo Emery, Globe Correspondent, 12/03/97
WELLESLEY - It is a long way from Wellesley to the jungle border of Burma
and Thailand, but the thousands of miles shrink to nothing when Katharine
Redford speaks of Baby Doe, a 2-month-old infant she said was kicked into a
cooking fire by a Burmese soldier forcibly evicting villagers from their
As her own child sleeps in a nearby bedroom, Redford quietly describes how
the Burmese army has been clearing a jungle route for a billion-dollar
natural gas pipeline across Burma, also known as Myanmar. The army forces
villagers to work as porters and human mine-sweepers, and sows the carnage
that includes Baby Doe's death.
When she arrived as a volunteer on the border, villagers asked her the
question that now consumes her life: In a nation universally condemned for
rights abuses, how can the law be wielded in the service of the Burmese
"Everywhere we went, people were asking us legal questions and saying,
'What can we do with the law,'" said Redford, 29, sitting in her parents'
Wellesley home. "That gave us the idea that there are no lawyers [in
Burma], and there's a use for them. You can use international law, which
these people don't have access to."
That realization was the genesis of EarthRights International, a fledgling
legal team that includes Redford and her husband, Ka Hsaw Wa; a fellow
graduate of the University of Virginia law school; and a handful of lawyers
in Thailand. With funding from Boston's John Merck Fund and financier
George Soros' Open Society Institute, the group incorporated in 1995 in
Along with several other legal groups, ERI is representing Baby Doe and 13
other plaintiffs in a suit filed a year ago against California-based Unocal
Corp., a gas and oil firm that is part of the consortium building the
Yadana gas pipeline in Burma.
Only two years out of law school, the Wellesley native is making legal
history on behalf of the anonymous Burmese villagers. In March, a US
District Court - the California district where Unocal is located - ruled
that a US company can be held liable for human-rights abuses committed by
an overseas partner, in this case, agencies of Burma's government.
In agreeing with the plaintiffs that ''human-rights abuses perpetuated by
military forces are the legal responsibility of all the consortium
partners,'' the ruling turned on its head the notion that only governments
can be liable for human-rights violations. The judge cited a 1789 law known
as the Alien Tort Statute, written to give Americans recourse against
pirate attacks in international waters. The law has been dormant for more
than 200 years, but has been dusted off by human-rights advocates such as
Redford seeking accountability for corporations in an increasingly global
"She understands keenly the role that lawsuits can play in a bigger
campaign," said Simon Billenness, senior analyst for Franklin Research and
Development Corporation, a Boston investment firm that advocates for
human-rights issues. Billenness was instrumental in getting the state in
1996 to pass a selective purchasing law that discourages companies doing
business with the state from operating in Burma.
He said Redford's work "and the work of ERI have greatly increased the
pressure on oil companies to withdraw from Burma."
On Dec. 15, the judge will decide whether a preliminary injunction will be
leveled against Unocal, as well as whether the court will allow the
plaintiffs to be certified as a class.
Though Redford spends the majority of her time shuttling between Bangkok
and the Burmese border, she is home to snatch precious moments with her
parents and speak in Boston about the organization's work. With a
fund-raiser planned in Cambridge for tomorrow, the group hopes that its
success will spark legal efforts in support of rights issues in other
Southeast Asian nations.
"We never could have dreamed that we could come this far," said Redford. "I
can't think of anything better than working for freedom and democracy."
This story ran on page B01 of the Boston Globe on 12/03/97.
© Copyright 1997 Globe Newspaper Company.
EarthRights International can be reached at eri@xxxxxxx